Justo González and the Politics of Impassibility, Part 2

In part one of this series on the politics of impassibilty, we surveyed the argument made by Hispanic theologian Justo González for the rejection of the false god of the pagan, Gentile philosophers—which is actually an idol—in favor of the self-disclosing God of the Bible, supremely revealed in Messiah Jesus of Nazareth. We demonstrated that there is a socio-political dimension to the theological conclusions at which one arrives. The doctrine of impassibility comes from an Athenian society built on the backs of slave labor. Impassibility was the natural outflow the Athenian aristocracy’s indifference to the suffering of the lower classes. They projected their value of personal impassibility onto their conception of God.

“The interests of a dominant social class work much more subtly, pervading the mentality of those who form part of it, and even of those who are subject to it, to such a point that those interests are eventually confused with pure rationality.” – p.97

“It has often been remarked that Plato’s understanding of the ideal state and its order was essentially aristocracy, although an aristocracy of the intellect rather than of wealth. What has not be remarked as often is that the same is true of his metaphysics.” – p.97

In part two, we’ll look at how González early Christianity made the turn from triune God of the Bible, revealed in Jesus to the idolatry of the philosophers God-conception.

‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’

In Acts 19, Paul was in Ephesus where he’s been preaching and teaching the Gospel of Jesus. This caused a disturbance because a local businessperson realized that Paul’s message would affect his bottom line. His business was tied up in the worship of false gods: idols. Paul’s message confronted the Ephesian idolatry, therefore, Paul had to go!

“Idols have a socioeconomic function.” – p.99

González can draw a straight line from the economic interests of a society to its idols:

“What is significant in this entire episode is the manner in which Demetrius links the interests of his hearers—and indeed of the entire city of Ephesus, which profited from the worship of Artemis—with piety. His concern is based on both economic and religious considerations. But the final result is an outburst of religious indignation, so that it appears that the only reason why the Ephesian crowd opposes Paul’s preaching is that their religion has been attacked. It would have been difficult to start a riot with people crying, “Paul is threatening our business.” But that is in effect the motivation behind the seemingly more religious cry, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” Idolatry is used to serve the interests of those who profit from it.

The same is true in our day. The ‘God‘ who passes for the biblical God is used to protect the interests of North American investments overseas. THat is the reason why so many people are incensed when they hear that Christians in the Third World are opposed to such interests, which to them is opposing God. The idol, joined with the military-industrial-academic complex, supports the building of bigger and more devastating bombs, all in the name of the survival of Western civilization, which has come to be equated with Christianity. Like Demetrius of old, those who protect the vested interests of the privileged call us to be more “religious.” But the truth is that they are calling us to the idol that supports the status quo. To such calls we should reply, ‘Let the dead gods bury their dead.’ Let the ‘God‘ of the privileged follow the path of Artemis, Huitzilophochtli, and the crocodiles of the Nile.” – p.99-100

Just as we saw that the doctrine of impassibilty served to uphold the indifference of Athenian aristocracy, the worship of a different idol (this time Artemis) served to uphold the economic interests of the Ephesian craftsman. And it should be pointed out that Athenian indifference to the suffering of their lower classes also has an economic dimension, since the labor of their slaves and lower class non-citizens built the foundations of their society. Therefore, underlying all idolatry are vested political and economic interests that often claim to be “pure reason” when the idol’s proponents are blind to their own social location and privilege.

The Pagan, Gentile Origins of the Arian Controversy

The generation of Christians that flowed from the initial apostolic Jesus movement inherited the evangelistic task, but were charged to extend the Gospel into all the world, which meant they would have to learn to communicate the Gospel to the Greco-Roman world. Without persecution as a major concern, the evangelistic task morphed into “apologetics.”

“Throughout the second century, and well into the third, there was no systematic persecution of Christians. It was illegal to be Christian; but those who followed the new faith were not sought out by the authorities. Persecution and martyrdom depended on local circumstances, and particularly the good will of neighbors.”

“…during the entire second century, Christians were in a precarious position. They were not constantly persecuted. Sometimes they were persecuted in some areas of the Empire, and not in others. Since the general policy of the Empire was that outlined by Trajan—Christians were not to be sought, but, if brought before the authorities, they must be forced to recant or be punished—the good will of their neighbors was very important. If any believed the evil rumors about them, they would be accused, and persecution would break out. For this reason it was very important to show that those rumors were untrue, and to give pages a better and more favorable understanding of Christianity. This was the task of the apologists…” [1]

Some of the rumors that spread about Christians were based on misunderstandings of the Christian gathering, which for obvious reasons, was secretive. The “love feasts” that Christians enjoyed together, combined with Christians calling each other “brother” and “sister,” led to the rumor that Christian worship was an “orgiastic” event where Christians “vented their lusts in indiscriminate and even incestuous unions.” [2]

The early apologists were rightly concerned to refute such perverse rumors. However, their quest for legitimacy and respectability didn’t stop there. They also wanted their conception of God to be considered philosophically tenable by the intellectuals of their day.

“Much more difficult to refute was the criticism of a number of cultured pagans who had taken the trouble to learn about Christianity and claimed that it was intellectually wanting. Although it attacked Christianity on numerous counts, this criticism boiled down to a main point: Christians were an ignorant lot whose doctrines, although preached under a cloak of wisdom, were foolish and even self-contradictory. This seems to have been a common attitude among the cultured aristocracy, for whom Christians were a despicable rabble.” [3]

The Greco-Roman context was pervaded by the belief in an impassible Supreme Being. How was the Church supposed to preach the Gospel of the Crucified God? The apologetic challenge was immense!

One early church theologian came up with a solution: he built upon the work of Philo and the prologue of the Fourth Gospel to use the Greek “logos” to connect the history of a Jewish Messiah to Plato’s world of abstract forms. His was called Justin Martyr.

“The doctrine of the absolute immutability of God led necessarily to the question of how such a God can relate to a mutable world. In a way, this was not a new problem, for already Plato had had difficulties in relating his world of ideas to the present world of transitory existence. The theory of ‘participation’ he developed was an attempt, although not quite successful, to bridge that gap. At a later time, those who sought to employ Platonism to interpret the Judeo-Christian tradition had similar difficulties. The clearest case is probably Justin Martyr, the second-century apologist whose work did so much to bring together Christian doctrine and Greek philosophy. Justin, like Plato before him, agreed that the Supreme Being, God, must be immutable. How, then, does that immutable God relate to this mutable world? Justin found his answer by drawing on the doctrine of the ‘logos,’ of ancient lineage among Greek philosophers. The logos then becomes the link between God and the world, between the mutable and the immutable. This was the basic framework within which Arianism, and much of the theology that refuted it, developed.” [4]

With this new tool in hand, the logos-bridge between the pagan—Gentile philosophy of Athens and the Hebrew God of the Bible—Justin was able to claim that Socrates and Plato were Christians too, since they reasoned ‘according to the logos.’

“We have been taught that Christ is the firstborn of God, and we have proclaimed that he is the Logos, in whom every race of people have shared. And those who live according to the Logos are Christians, even though they may have been counted as atheists—such as Socrates and Heraclitus, and others like them, among the Greeks. Whatever all people have said well [kalos] belongs to us Christians.” [5]

But not all early church theologians were as quick to baptize the contributions of pagan, Gentile philosophers. Tertullian had some less than positive things to say about the role of Greek philosophy on Christian theology:

“For philosophy provides the material of worldly wisdom, in boldness asserting itself to be the interpreter of the divine nature and dispensation. The heresies themselves receive their weapons from philosophy. It was from this source that Valentinus, who was a disciple of Plato, got his idea about the ‘aeons’ and the ‘trinity of humanity.’ And it was from there that the god of Marcion (much to be preferred, on account of his tranquility) came; Marcion came from the Stoics. To say that the soul is subject to deal is to go the way of Epicurus. And the denial of the resurrection of the body is found throughout the writings of all the philosophers. To say that matter is equal with God is to follow the doctrine of Zeno; to speak of a god of fire is to draw on Heraclitus. It is the same subjects which preoccupy both the heretics and the philosophers. Where does evil come from, and why? Where does human nature come from, and how? […] What is there in common between Athens and Jerusalem? between the Academy and the church? Our system of beliefs [institutio] comes from the Porch of Solomon, who himself taught that it was necessary to seek God in the simplicity of the heart. So much worst for those who talk of a ‘Stoic,’ ‘Platonic’ or ‘dialectic’ Christianity! We have no need for curiosity after Jesus Christ, nor for inquiry [inquisitio] after the gospel. When we believe, we desire to believe nothing further. For we need believe nothing more than ‘there is nothing else which we are obliged to believe.’ ” [6]

Heresy crept into the church’s teaching on God and Christ by way of their good intentions to present a “favorable” understanding to their Greco-Roman context. By affirming the immutable and impassible god of the philosophers, apologists such as Justin compromised the biblical portrait of a relational, dynamic, passionate God.

“The problems that would later appear in Arianism were already present in Justin’s theology, for they are derived from the same framework in which the difference between God and the world is seen in terms of the contrast between mutability and immutability. Once the matter was posed in this manner, Justin had no other option than to declare that the logos was the intermediary between God and the world and was therefore a being whose status was somewhere between the immutable God and this transitory world. […]

It was out of this context that Arianism arose. The traditional view that Arianism was an attempt to reaffirm Jewish monotheism and that it arose out of Judaizing tendencies, is now rejected by most scholars. I would add that such a notion, which appeared while the controversy was still raging, was the result of antisemitic bias, which sought to sin the origin of this and other heresies on Jews and Judaizers. The fact of the matter is that both Arius and his opponents were much influenced by Greek philosophy. [7]

In light of the attempts made by apologists like Justin to bridge the gap between the mutable world and his immutable conception of God, along with his attempt to bridge the gap between the god of the philosophers and the God of the Bible, Arianism arose as the most consistent theological position. Since God was immutable and impassible, the Supreme Being could not be thought to become “incarnate” in a human being. That would require change and being acted upon by external realities. Therefore, Arianism swoops in with a solution—it was the mutable Logos that became incarnate, not the immutable god.

But, the bishops of Nicea were too immersed in Scripture and too committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ to go along with that mischaracterization of the divine nature. So they created a less logically consistent model that was more biblically faithful.

“Even though perhaps unwittingly, the Council refused to accept uncritically the supposed immutability and impassibility of God, and the doctrine that it promulgated would forever remind the church of the difference between the active, living God of the Scripture and the fixed ‘first cause’ or ‘Supreme Being’ of the philosophers and of much of Christian theology. What the bishops said at Nicea was that this One who ‘for us and for our salvation came down and became incarnate, becoming man, suffered and rose again on the third day,’ this One is ‘God from God, light from light, true God from true God, … of one substance with the Father.’ How then can the divine substance be conceived of in fixed, static terms? For generations, Christians would be discomfited by this statement, which they took to be authoritative and which yet spoke of the Godhead in terms hardly compatible with the notion of God that theology itself had come to regard as normative.

The inconsistency of the Nicene position has often been pointed out and was one of the main arguments of the Arian party against the decisions of the Council. Indeed, the bishops gathered at Nicea were trapped within the ontologist and static notions of God that had become dominant, but they refused to carry that notion of God to its ultimate consequences. Rather, they introduced an insurmountable obstacle in the way of any who would attempt to draw such consequences: The Son of God, the One whom we have seen, touched and handled in Jesus Christ, is ‘of one substance with the Father.’ Thus the gospel of the minority God was preserved even as enormous forces were reshaping the very notion of God in order to adjust it to the new status enjoyed by Christians.” [8]

Imperial Power Versus the Passible God

What’s all this got to do with politics? Good question! I’m glad you asked.

All people mirror their conceptions of God; we ‘become what we behold.’ And the powerful desire a powerful conception of God, so that they can remain in power. Those who are indifferent to the suffering of others desire a conception of God that is indifferent to the suffering of others. If Arian has succeeded and the church had adopted the conception of God as an immutable and impassible Monarch, who sends a mutable and passible emissary in the logos, then the church would have abandoned the Gospel of God’s love personally embodied in Jesus Christ. The church would have compromised the biblical portrait of God passionately pursuing God’s people and giving God’s own life to save them. The church would have justified all the powers who oppress and exploit the weak, all the powers who rule by force and coercion.

“The decision made at Nicea had political consequences that went far beyond the obvious. …The not so obvious was that its decision and the doctrine that it promulgated had—like every doctrine—political overtones. What was in fact affirmed by the Council was that the ‘very God of very God’ had become incarnate in a Jewish carpenter who was then condemned to death by the Roman Empire and the powerful of his time. This was the God whom the emperor had espoused. And all the while Constantine, and several Christian leaders around him, were trying to make it appear that the emperer was godlike and that God was emperorlike. […] If a carpenter condemned to death as an outlaw, someone who had nowhere to lay his head, was declared to be ‘very God of very God,’ such a declaration would put in doubt the very view of God and of hierarchy on which imperial power rests.”

“During the time of Constantius, it became evident that most church leaders were opposed to Arianism, and yet the emperor saw fit to favor that doctrine to the point of forcing several bishops to sign Arian—or quasi-Arian—declarations of faith. In this he was showing keen political intuition, for the Arian impassible God, clearly different from the passible and second-rate Son or Word of God, was more supportive of imperial authority than the living God of Scripture, even in the mitigated Nicene form.” [9]

In this, part two, of our series on Justo González and the politics of impassibility, we’ve seen how the good-intentioned quest for a respectable Christian apology led to the compromising of the biblical portrait of God for the idolatrous conception of God from the pagan, Gentile philosophers. Apologists like Justin Martyr inadvertently paved the way for the heresy of Arianism (among others) that led to the Council of Nicea’s condemnation of such views. Rather than supporting the immutable, impassible god of the philosophers, the bishops at Nicea proclaimed that the God of the Bible was passible and mutable and had become incarnate in the Jewish Messiah Jesus of Nazareth, was crucified, died, was buried, and rose again! Such a biblical view was threatening to the power structure of their day. The imperial power hierarchy relied upon a vision of divinity that was protected from all such change and passions. It needed an impassible god to remain indifferent to the oppression it caused.

In part three, well see explore the triune God’s suffering on the Cross, the trinity, and perhaps more. Until next time, Praise the Passible God of the Bible Revealed in Jesus Christ Crucified!


  1. Justo González, The Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Reformation (Kindle Locations 1221-1236). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition [http://astore.amazon.com/theolograffi-20/detail/006185588X]
  2. Ibid., Kindle Location 1252 of 9497.
  3. Ibid., Kindle Locations 1265-1268.
  4. Justo González, Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective (Abingdon, 1990), p.103. [http://astore.amazon.com/theolograffi-20/detail/0687230675]
  5. “Justin Martyr on Philosophy and Theology” in Alister E. McGrath The Christian Theology Reader (Blackwell, 2007), p.3.
  6. Ibid., “Tertullian on the Relation of Philosophy and Heresy”, p.6.
  7. González, Mañana, p.105.
  8. Ibid., p.106-107.
  9. Ibid., p.108-109